Evaluating Online Applicants

With the growth of virtual high schools, new issue surfaces for admissions officers.
September 29, 2009

BALTIMORE -- When Debra Von Bargen sits down to write the counselor evaluations for the students she advises about college options, she typically has never met any of them. That doesn't mean she doesn't know their academic strengths and personalities. But as counselor at the Stanford University Online High School, she doesn't meet most students until they come to the campus for graduation.

The idea that a high school counselor may be writing evaluations for students she has never met in person seemed to take some in the audience here at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling by surprise. No one in academe these days could be oblivious to the boom in distance (higher) education, but there are also growing numbers of high schoolers taking courses online -- in some cases just one or two courses, but in other cases their entire curriculum.

For many admissions offices, this is new terrain.

"We're pretty clueless on lots of this stuff," said David Mabe, assistant director of admissions at Davidson College. "As we are seeing more and more students from this background, I'm finding that my colleagues and I don't know how to talk about those students."

A few years back, NACAC meetings featured sessions where counselors considered how to evaluate home-schooled students, a growing population that didn't fit neatly into concepts like class rank and where an admissions office didn't necessarily have a trusted guidance counselor to call. Comments from Mabe and others sounded remarkably similar to those that were made about home-schooled students.

Davidson is "a community," Mabe said. So when he and his colleagues are looking at a candidate, they are thinking not just about academic qualifications, but about how the person could contribute to that community. "How does a virtual high school enable students to lead and serve peers effectively? Can you lead and serve peers without being next to them?" Admissions officers also wonder, in a way they don't about students at public or private high schools, why a student would select to go to high school online. "I just don't know what to make of this stuff."

Online high schoolers who want to go to Davidson need not worry. Mabe made clear that he was actually speaking from his knowledge base before he started recently looking into the issue. But the questions he raised are typical, Von Bargen said, of what many guidance counselors think. She said she works the phones to make the case directly to colleges that they should welcome these applicants, not fear them.

One reason colleges are likely to listen is that this population is growing.

Data from the U.S. Education Department, presented by Brian Lekander of the agency's Office of Innovation and Improvement, show that 2 million students in elementary and secondary schools had some online instruction last year, more than twice as many as the year before. For most of those students, online instruction was for one or two courses, not an entire high school curriculum. But completely online high schools are growing too.

Thirty-two states have virtual high schools, and 18 states have programs for students to enroll full time in virtual high schools. Lekander said that the programs vary widely, with some designed to provide advanced courses not available in remote communities, some designed for those with learning or physical disabilities, and still others offering a mix of everything. A number of the high schools, he said, have become popular with advanced students.

Jan Keating, headmaster of the Stanford Online High School, made the case that her students should be highly sought by colleges. She noted the wealth of Advanced Placement and other enhanced courses, the way her students must learn self-discipline and scheduling in ways that challenge many high school students, and the reality that doing something as important as high school online is a lot more normal to digital natives than it may be to their parents' generation.

Keating stressed that the "online environment is not for everybody," although she predicted that numbers would really take off for students in high school taking a few online courses, which also raises issues for admissions officers.

Given the questions have about whether online high school students interact with others, Keating stressed that they do -- in seminars (the high school mixes synchronous and asynchronous education), and in student clubs. Though the students are scattered worldwide, they have a student government, a student newspaper and many other activities. Keating said that they organize these activities themselves and find ways to get around their physical separation. A cooking contest relied on visual appearance, she said.

Student relationships may in fact be better online, Keating she said. At the online high school, she said that while students may see images of one another in seminar, friendships form without the emphasis of most high schools on physical appearance or clothing.

To the extent admissions officers aren't familiar with a given online high school, Keating said that they should start with the basics, such as accreditation. But she said that they should then look at the courses, the qualifications of faculty members, and the student experience. While Keating acknowledged that this would take time, she said that since the numbers of applicants from good online high schools will rise, it would be a worthwhile investment.

Zachery Chaffin, a graduate of Keating's school, is now a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University. He had been home-schooled, but in his junior year, he said that his parents realized that they were about at their limits on setting up his course plans, and so he enrolled online. Chaffin said the online high school challenged him academically, and that he had a "seamless transition" to a demanding college, feeling prepared both academically and personally. "I had to learn to be self-motivated," he said.

He said that he had to take more initiative to get to know his online high school teachers than he might have in a physical high school, and that skill has served him well in college. Similarly, he said his fellow online students were diverse in a way typical of college, but not at plenty of high schools.

Some of his Hopkins friends, upon learning that he was educated first by his parents and then at an online high school, have consoled him, as if he didn't have any experiences outside his house. But Chaffin assured the audience that "I was never a hermit" and that he laughs at the idea that his friends feel he lost out on something.

Online high schools even have senioritis, Chaffin said. He almost missed a an AP final, he said, because he was (briefly) not as focused as he should have been. But a friend rescued him with a reminder -- by text message.

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